Extreme Heat

Mark Strassmann is a CBS News correspondent based in Atlanta.
Summer's a sweat-fest in most places. For many news outlets, it's a chance to do easy stories about people wilting and miserable. We're in one of those times.

But sometimes extreme weather, and stories about it, really means something.

In the winter, those of us in the South are easy targets for national news stories. Whenever a couple inches of snow falls in Atlanta, the headline reads, "Old Man Winter Grips Dixie." Network television shows video of Southern drivers skidding on slick streets, and people in the Northeast have a good laugh. "its two inches, get over it."

Come summer, it's a different story. Southerners get their chance to snicker. When temperatures climb into the 90s in New York, there's often a media frenzy. "Heat Wave Stalks the Big Apple." Well, you know what we call that kind of weather in Atlanta? April.

But this week's heat wave in the news is different. 100-degree temperatures from St. Louis to Dallas to Birmingham. Lots of places are setting local heat records. In Memphis, the heat index -- what the weather actually feels like -- has exceeded 100 degrees for 28 days and counting. Unless you're a Bedouin camel herder, that's a hot streak by any standard, and scorching weather even to Southerners.

It's also dangerous weather. At least a dozen deaths this week have been attributed to the heat wave. In fact over the last decade, the Centers for Disease Control reports the leading cause of weather-related deaths is heat. More people have died in that period from high temperatures than have been killed by hurricanes, tornados, floods and lightning combined. The most vulnerable group of all may be the elderly, especially those living on a fixed income. They're often people who have to choose between medication and air conditioning.

I followed Erica Mason, an Atlanta-area social worker, as she checked in on her elderly clients. She's one of those people who chose her field because it's more important to her in life to do good than to do well. She doesn't make a lot of money, and her clients have even fewer resources. She was dropping off fans to a few of her clients, potentially life-saving gifts. She also checked back in with one couple, the Tidwells, who had turned off their AC last week because they just couldn't afford it. They had fallen behind on other bills, especially the one from the gas company. The house apparently felt like a kiln. Mason said by the time she finished her 90-minute interview of the couple, she had sweated through her clothes. She was so concerned for their well-being, she even lost sleep that night.

Here's the good news. Mason negotiated with the Tidwells' creditors, pleading for extensions to allow the couple not to just live the summer in air conditioning, but survive it. The creditors agreed. She got the Tidwells to agree, for their own health, to turn the AC back on. When I dropped by their house with her, the living room was pleasantly cooled. But you have to wonder how many other people, elderly and otherwise, are facing the same dilemma and don't know who to turn to for help. And spend their days sweating.

The forecast, in much of the Southeast, calls for triple-digit temperatures through Friday.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.